Open Access Trouble

Science won’t be putting its back issues on JSTOR anymore, Yale has stopped supporting BioMed Central, and now the American Anthropological Association (AAA)will be moving their publications from the University of California Press to Wiley-Blackwell. All in all, it’s been a bad month for open access, more access, or cheaper access. It seems that Yale is pulling out of BioMed and the AAA is moving to Wiley-Blackwell for the same reason – money. Yale doesn’t want to pay to publish their scholars’ research, or at least not so directly, since they’ll be paying for it one way or another. The AAA makes its money from its publications, and they can make more of it through Wiley than through UC.

The AAA decision may be the right one for them. They probably will make more money. In the case of that decision, the only people likely to suffer are scholars, not the association itself. I think Yale’s decision has more potential to backfire for them. If publishing, especially STM publishing, continues to be dominated by commercial publishers, prices will continue to go up. I’ve heard librarians complain that commercial vendors don’t seem to be good citizens, or something like that. The problem isn’t that they aren’t good citizens. And the problem isn’t that they don’t provide good content. The problem is that commercial vendors and scholarly institutions have two different goals. Scholars want to disseminate their research and libraries want to provide access to that research if they can. Commercial vendors want to make money. I don’t see a problem with making money, and I’d certainly like to make more of it myself, but there’s bound to be conflicts of interest. And as costs go up and libraries get strapped for cash, some research will be less available.

A commenter on the IHE AAA article notes that he doesn’t understand the negative reaction, because increasingly even commercial journal publishers are allowing authors to place their articles in institutional repositories and the like. He notes that the UC Press and Wiley are “both are “Green” on author Open Access self-archiving, meaning they have both endorsed immediate self-archiving of the author’s final, accepted draft (postprint) in the author’s Institutional Repository, providing immediate Open Access to the article.” It’s a thoughtful comment with many supporting links, but I still think librarians and scholars should have a problem. First, not every institution has an institutional repository. Second, libraries are still going to have to subscribe to the journals as long as they can afford to, at least at research libraries. The commenter argues that the “62% of deposits that are immediately made OA will soon draw the 38% that are Closed Access deposits over to their ranks under the natural pressure of research usage and impact alone.” Possibly. But if “green” commercial publishers aren’t making enough profit, how likely is it that they will stay green? If no one subscribes to the journals because pre- or post prints are available in repositories, will the journal continue to exist? And if it doesn’t, how will universities adapt?

I once heard an anecdote that I hope is mythical, but perhaps not. A consortium of 10 libraries were paying $10K/year for some science journal. They told the publisher that 9 of them were going to cancel their subscriptions and split the last subscription, and maintain access through ILL. The publisher said fine. The remaining subscription would now be $100K/year. It may or may not have happened, but it could happen.